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The Amazon Prime Effect’s ‘Enviro-Psychological Burden’, Explained

Is sustainability still just a preference? Research would say no, it’s a need.

Manifest, a fulfillment startup offering energy-efficient and plastic-free warehousing and biodegradable packaging for digital brands, investigated this very issue in its 2023 Annual Sustainable Ecommerce Fulfillment Report, which collected 1,000 responses from online shoppers to find out if consumers really do prefer purchasing from merchants who are committed to operating sustainably.

“According to our survey, the demand to meet consumer preference for sustainable choices is table stakes,” said George Wojciechowski, co-founder and CEO of Manifest, who hopes the report released on Jan. 3 will catalyze the “sustainable transformation” of modern e-commerce supply chains.

Manifest, which operates warehouses in Austin, Texas and Atlanta, wanted to discover if sustainability truly has become not a preference, but a necessity for sellers serving today’s in-the-know consumer. Moreover, merchants are faced with a myriad of sales pitches from vendors who claim to offer a more sustainable replacement for their e-commerce supply chain tools. This includes everything from e-commerce platforms and third-party logistics to raw materials, product packaging, shipping packaging, data visibility and more.

The survey data suggests that digital shoppers have developed their own unique personal sustainability preferences from an array of eco-friendly shopping options.

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“It’s clear that the demands are changing, and have already considerably changed when you look at the study and the evidence that we were able to compile; consumers are willing to pay more for sustainability,” Wojciechowski said. “So businesses want to get ahead of where everything is going. They need to examine where their supply chain, where in their business, [and where] they can be more environmentally responsible.”

Consumers increasingly are demanding sustainability: 55 percent usually considers the sustainability impact of a product instead of choosing whatever’s cheapest, while 57 percent weigh the sustainability impact of shipping more so than simply prioritizing speed.

“The Prime effect is real, but so is the growing eco-conscious buyer,” Jeremy Horowitz, managing partner at Because Ventures, a company that invests in social impact e-commerce, said. “The fact that more than 50 percent of shopper cohorts are willing to spend more and wait longer to get a package shows the changing tide in consumer trends. We as consumers, and a society, realize that price and convenience aren’t the end all be all [when] buying goods online. The inconvenience, and enviro-psychological burden, of multiple packages outweighs the instant gratification of immediate delivery.”

Seventy-six percent of surveyed respondents expressed greater interest in buying from brands that use recycled packaging. This sustainability attribute was more highly rated than seven other practices, including obtaining certifications from private and public governing bodies. In other words, consumers—unlike venture capitalists and private equity firms­—usually don’t know (and don’t care) if operating an asset-heavy-but-sustainable physical business is more costly than running an asset-light program.

“Across the brands I’ve worked with, packaging is the place most brands begin their sustainability journey. Many brands move into using recycled materials or other low-impact materials. This is becoming table stakes, and consumers are demanding more and more transparency from brands,” Anisha Gupta, co-founder of Bluebird Climate, a software platform that helps brands produce low-carbon and waste products, said. “Today, the brands that are truly innovating and capturing the attention of Gen Z and [m]illennial consumers are ones that innovate by looking at their sustainability holistically, such as performing product-level carbon footprints to understand and reduce their hotspots or partnering with vendors to reduce the impacts of their facilities, such as increasing on-site renewable energy use. In my opinion, this is the future for all e-commerce brands wanting to stay competitive.”

Logistics veteran and ShipBob alum George Wojciechowski co-founded Manifest in 2021.

Forty percent of consumers are more likely to purchase from a brand using recycled packaging, Manifest’s study found. A sustainable order fulfillment transformation for a modern e-commerce business is impossible without sustainable order packaging, published sustainability reports and offering sustainable trade-offs throughout order checkout procedures, it pointed out.

“We can no longer separate our own well-being from that of the world in which we live,” Frank Ricciardi, CEO and founder of wellness company Maavee, which makes a total well-being app, said. “This is becoming more evident at a much faster pace than ever before. As a result, consumers are speaking with their wallets and making their wishes clear. Brands that respond will survive and brands that take the lead will thrive.”

Thirty-eight percent of consumers are more likely to purchase from a brand that uses compostable materials.

“It’s no secret that today’s consumers are seeking out brands who prioritize sustainable best practices,” Michael Wroblewski, director of strategic partnerships at EcoCart, a company helps brands effectively communicate their sustainability story, said. “What these statistics prove is that consumers now demand radical transparency into what impact is actually being made as opposed to highlighting a certificate on the bottom of their website.”

The Manifest report found that merchants wish to partner with companies that can redesign their supply chain for greater sustainability. Self-reported “decision makers” who work in merchant organizations that ship up to 100,000 orders per month outlined three sustainable practices as the greatest attraction of new potential partnerships: a switch from plastic to compostable/biodegradable, recycled rather than new packaging, and renewable energy sources to power fulfillment facilities. The latter two tied for second place.

“It’s evident that consumers now have the knowledge and power to make environmentally conscious purchasing decisions,” Melanie Carsch, assistant director of sustainability at Suffolk County Community College, said in the report. “As more companies take the initiative to integrate better sustainable practices, the days of greenwashing have taken a backseat. Consumers are forming connections with companies that value purposeful outcomes.”

Merchants also reported wanting to honestly claim and publish sustainability practices as their own creation rather than simply paying lip service to private or public governing bodies’ compliance standards. The single most trusted sustainability metric among these decision-makers is transparency in fulfillment practices, trailed by transparency in sourcing, plastic kept from waterways and carbon-neutral order options.

“Consumers demand transparency across the entire supply chain when it comes to sustainability; we’re seeing it more and more,” Chantal Emmanuel, chief technology officer and co-founder of LimeLoop, a company shifting the shipping paradigm to address these new challenges of waste and climate impact, said in the Manifest report. “Moving forward, it won’t be enough for retailers to promote their sustainability products without also providing visibility into their end-to-end sustainable practices including third-party vendors and suppliers.”

Moreover, brand owners prefer to originate their own sustainable practices and hold themselves accountable to the standards they develop.

“This makes complete sense. Certifications are not a catch-all for e-commerce infrastructure vendors displaying their commitment to sustainability,” Sarah Ribner, CEO and co-founder of Piperwai, the first natural deodorant to use activated charcoal to neutralize odor and absorb wetness, noted in the report. “Referrals are great but still require due-diligence post-intro. I want to work with vendors who are 100 percent transparent in how they operate, especially supply chain partners like materials vendors and fulfillment partners. The more they talk about what they are doing that proves their commitment to sustainability and to my brand, the better.”

The study asked participants which of a vendor’s sustainability commitments they trust most. Transparency in fulfillment practices earned 67 percent, followed by transparency in sourcing (62 percent), while options to make orders carbon neutral for free and amount of plastic kept out of waterways tied for 60 percent.

The Manifest report stated that consumers’ shifting preferences don’t always coincide with an e-commerce brand’s long-term strategy involving the pre-production of multiple planning documents, research and development. In addition to matching consumers’ interests, purchasing habits and trust, it’s important for merchants to determine how much consumers truly prefer what they say they want.

What people say and consequently do are often misaligned—especially in times of economic uncertainty. So when faced with a recession, does all of this take a back seat? Is sustainability still at the forefront of brands’—and consumers’—minds when dealing with financial hardship? 

“That implies that sustainability always has to be the more expensive choice. It oftentimes is, but not always,” Wojciechowski said. “[Sustainability] is a fundamental sentiment among consumers that is important, and it’s not going anywhere. If anything, there’s going to be a groundswell movement. There already is a groundswell, but a further groundswell where this becomes standardized among the sentiments of consumers.”

Regardless of where a brand may be in its sustainable journey, it’s never too late to start.

“We can never give up,” Wojciechowski said. “You’ve always got to do something. And I think it is a great first step to examine where in your supply chain you could make a better choice. And we’re trying to make that as easy as possible at Manifest.”

The survey conducted in partnership with Swytchback, a survey solutions provider, polled consumers ages 18-75 from diverse income backgrounds, ranging from less than $12,000 (12 percent), $10,000 through $40,000 (27 percent), $40,000 through $80,000 (24 percent) following that pattern through over $500,000 (4 percent). The respondents were based in all regions of the United States and were 63 percent female.

Prior to launching Manifest last year, Wojciechowski cofounded ShipBob, an e-commerce fulfillment service for direct-to-consumer (DTC) businesses, which recently announced Series E funding of $200 million from Bain Capital Ventures with participation from prior investors, including SoftBank. In one year, Manifest has become the third-party logistics (3PL) provider for Definite Articles, a brand started by Aaron Sanandres, co-founder and CEO of shirt company Untuckit. Manifest also picks, packs and ships e-commerce orders for Plant People, baby blanket brand Little Hometown and TopToxx, among others, with 100 percent merchant retention to date.